Freedom of expression serves as the cornerstone of any democratic society, playing a pivotal role in the development and sustenance of community media in the United Kingdom. It underpins the essential mechanism through which individuals and communities can engage in open dialogue, exchange diverse perspectives, and challenge established norms, thereby contributing to the vibrancy and resilience of our democratic institutions.
In the context of community media, which thrives on the principles of do-it-yourself (DIY), decentralisation, and non-professional participation, freedom of speech is particularly crucial. It allows for the representation of marginalised voices and the articulation of alternative viewpoints that are often sidelined in mainstream media channels. By fostering a platform for such diversity, community media not only enriches the media landscape but also strengthens the fabric of our pluralistic society.
However, this freedom is not without its challenges. In an era where the boundaries of acceptable speech are continually negotiated and contested, safeguarding the right to freedom of expression while ensuring it is exercised responsibly becomes paramount. It is essential that mechanisms are in place to protect against the suppression of speech, yet equally vital to ensure that this freedom is not exploited to propagate harm or stifle the rights of others.
The United Kingdom, with its long-standing commitment to democratic values, must continue to nurture and protect freedom of speech within community media. This involves not only defending against external threats to silence dissenting voices but also supporting the internal growth of community media platforms. By providing the necessary resources, training, and support, we can ensure that community media remains a vibrant and essential part of our democratic dialogue.
Community media in the UK supports the practice of free expression and freedom of speech by providing a platform for individuals to share their opinions and ideas without state interference. This aligns with Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, which protects the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart information, and engage in various forms of expression such as political, artistic, and commercial expression.
By allowing individuals to communicate and express themselves in any medium, including online platforms, community media plays a crucial role in upholding these fundamental rights. However, there have been concerns about potential limitations to free expression, particularly in the context of online speech, as evidenced by discussions surrounding the UK Online Safety Bill and cases of social media prosecutions. Despite these challenges, community media remains an important vehicle for promoting open dialogue and safeguarding the principles of free expression and freedom of speech in the UK.
While social media channels are often full of people expressing their opinions and holding discussions that challenge received and accepted views – often expressed in robust terms – community media platforms are usually reticent to enter into polarising debate and discussion, for fear that they may overstep accepted boundaries in balancing competing views and ensuring impartial coverage of controversial topics. Regulatory rules, such as the Ofcom Broadcast Code, or the IMPRESS self-regulatory code, should not be seen as straightjackets that restrict deliberation, but rather a springboard that protects community media makers as they navigate and explore controversial topics.
Ensuring freedom of speech and expression in community media in the UK faces several challenges, including potential limitations on free expression, particularly in the context of online speech. The UK Online Safety Bill has raised concerns about its potential impact on free speech and encryption, as it grants authorities the power to silence user speech and impose heavy fines or block access to online content if it is deemed to be hateful or harmful. Furthermore, there have been cases of social media prosecutions, leading to debates about the protection of free speech on the internet and the potential need for legal changes to ensure its protection. When considering whether free expression should be limited, courts will question whether doing so could have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, the value of the particular form of expression, and the medium used. Despite these challenges, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act protects the right to freedom of expression in the UK, encompassing the freedom to hold opinions, receive and impart information, and engage in various forms of expression.
Community media outlets in the UK face the challenge of balancing freedom of speech with the potential for harm or offense to others. This dilemma is particularly evident in the context of online content moderation, where the need to protect freedom of expression conflicts with the goal of preventing harm caused by misinformation and offensive content. While freedom of speech is a fundamental right, concerns about the spread of misinformation, fake news, and privacy violations have led to debates about the role of social media companies in moderating content and enforcing community guidelines. When addressing this challenge, Ofcom considers whether limiting free expression could have a detrimental effect on free speech, and the value of the particular form of expression and medium used. During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Ofcom monitored and robustly policed broadcast media outlets to determine if they were being mindful of their Broadcast Code duties. This reflects the complex nature of balancing the protection of free speech with the prevention of harm and offense in community media outlets.
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code in the UK protects freedom of speech and expression by recognising their importance and setting out rules and standards that broadcasters must adhere to. It defines freedom of expression as an essential right, intrinsically linked to broadcasting and encompassing the audience’s right to receive information. The Code provides special protection for journalists and the media, acknowledging their vital role in promoting transparency, accountability, and democratic values. Additionally, it covers standards in programs, fairness, and privacy, while also prohibiting the broadcast of material likely to encourage or incite crime, disorder, hatred, or abuse. The Code is designed to reflect broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression and audiences’ right to receive information, while also providing adequate protection for members of the public from harmful content. By balancing these aspects, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code aims to safeguard freedom of speech and expression in the UK’s community media.
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code ensures that community media outlets do not violate freedom of speech and expression by recognising the importance of these rights and setting out rules and standards that broadcasters must follow. It provides special protection for journalists and the media, acknowledging their vital role in promoting transparency, accountability, and democratic values. The Code also prohibits the broadcast of material likely to encourage crime, disorder, hatred, or abuse, reflecting Ofcom’s duty to provide adequate protection for the public from harmful content. While regulating the content of broadcasts, Ofcom recognises the importance of freedom of expression and the role of the media in promoting accountability and democratic values. Furthermore, Ofcom investigates complaints from viewers or listeners who believe that a broadcast has breached the Broadcasting Code’s rules on hate speech and has the power to impose sanctions on broadcasters who breach the rules, including fines and revocation of licences. By balancing the protection of free speech with the prevention of harm and offence, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code safeguards freedom of speech and expression in the UK’s community media.
Community media outlets use various forms of accountability to protect freedom of expression and speech. They often operate as civil society organisations, with a commitment to inclusive and intercultural practices, voluntary participation, and ownership by and accountability to local communities and/or communities of interest they serve. Additionally, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code sets out rules and standards that broadcasters must adhere to, providing special protection for journalists and the media, while also prohibiting the broadcast of material likely to encourage crime, disorder, hatred, or abuse. When considering whether free expression should be limited, courts question whether doing so is compatible with the values of an open and democratic society. Free speech includes recognises that some may be uncomfortable or offended by the content, though this does not give anyone who is offended a veto over the rights of those speaking to hold and express views that are offensive.
The value of the particular forms of expression, and the medium used, are therefore bound together as it is recognised that some platforms carry more weight with readers, listeners or viewers. What marks the different platforms from one another is that they enact different models of accountability. For example, broadcast radio is subject to the Ofcom Broadcast Code and the compliance approach of each station. Social media is subject to the content moderation of the platforms, which varies according to the political and economic objectives of the parent companies. News platforms can sign up to independent editorial processes, such as the Impress news standards code.
Each of these forms of accountability helps to ensure that community media outlets uphold freedom of expression and speech while also preventing harm and offence. They do not provide a prescriptive framework through which specific editorial policies must be adopted, but offer, instead, a guide that can be used in very different circumstances and in varying contexts. With the right editorial and governance policies in place, it should be possible to foster more robust debate and discussion, without resorting to open-ended antagonism and baiting of opponents. The principle of accountability, that binds different types of community media operators together, should be seen as a benefit and not a hindrance. The alternative is chaos and a free-for-all, that won’t add to the value of public discussion, and will only exploit our worst impulses to exploit differences of opinion for sectarian gain.
The need to protect and foster freedom of expression within community media cannot be overstated. It is a fundamental right that ensures the diversity of voices and ideas necessary for a healthy democracy. As we move forward, it is imperative that all stakeholders, including policymakers, community media practitioners, and the wider public, work collaboratively to uphold and strengthen this foundational principle.